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Commons Chamber

Volume 449: debated on Thursday 20 July 2006

House of Commons

Thursday 20 July 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Food Industry

The food industry has a major impact on the environment, accounting for 14 per cent. of energy consumption by UK business and 7 million tonnes of carbon every year. The Government have implemented a number of measures under the food industry sustainability strategy to reduce negative impacts. I can tell the House that I am meeting the supermarkets today to discuss progress.

Tesco is trying to build an 88,000 sq ft supermarket just outside my constituency near to Chorlton town centre, which would lead to even more congestion and pollution in the area, as well as impact on the viability of local shops. Will the Secretary of State commit to urgent discussions with his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government with a view to protecting our local centres from these environmentally damaging developments?

The way in which the hon. Gentleman poses the question suggests that he knows that planning policy is not something that falls to DEFRA, but I am happy to say that I will look into the case, consistent with the important principle that Ministers do not interfere with planning decisions.

My right hon. Friend will know that some supermarkets, including Tesco, are slowly moving towards a much more positive environmental stance. Will he encourage them to take that aspect much more seriously and to put some serious money into local communities to improve the quality of the environment? Supermarkets are good in one area, and that is transport logistics. If Tesco’s transport logistics expertise could be used, for example, in the waste industry—8 per cent. of truck movements in our country are waste being hauled on our motorways—we could quickly reap some serious economic and environmental benefits.

When I meet the supermarkets later today, I shall certainly ask Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s whether they agree that Tesco provides a model of good practice and see what reaction I get. I take my hon. Friend’s point about transport logistics and waste. I was surprised to find that the supermarkets are on track, following the EU packaging directive, to reduce packaging by between 55 and 80 per cent. It is also worth mentioning—other hon. Members may raise it—the commitment in the energy review to ensure that some 5,000 medium-sized public and private sector organisations are part of a UK emissions trading system to deliver 1.2 million tonnes of carbon reduction every year. That is a major step forward, which I hope will command support throughout the House.

Will the Secretary of State comment on the policy of supermarkets importing cheap food from other regions of the world, such as south America, particularly in respect of the impact on the environment in those regions?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I think that I am right in saying that about 76 per cent. of food bought in the UK is domestically produced, though that is down by 5 or 6 per cent. over the last decade. Ensuring that local supply chains are strong and that local food producers are able to get their goods to market efficiently and effectively while securing a fair price for what they produce is critical. The hon. Gentleman also made the important point that global trade can benefit developing countries, or countries from which we import food, and be an important part of their standard of living. That can be done in either a more or less environmentally sensitive way. From our point of view, it is imperative that it is done in a more environmentally sensitive way.

The Isle of Wight is not entirely devoid of natural resources, but two Tesco-size lorries cross the Solent every year for every man, woman and child on the island to serve its supermarkets. At the same time, we produce a huge amount of agricultural produce ourselves. What can the Secretary of State do to reduce the food miles, to which the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) referred, that severely damage the environment?

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was about to say that he was one of the natural resources of the Isle of Wight, which would be a point of more contention than the need to reduce food miles. The most important thing is for the Isle of Wight to maximise its agricultural production in ways that local consumers want to buy. In the end, local food producers rather than the Government will be the key to the supply chain. Having said that, it is an important part of our strategy to help support local farmers to diversify and ensure that they are able to serve local markets in the most effective way.

It is good to hear the Secretary of State saying those words, but I remind him that three years ago his predecessor launched the Government’s public sector procurement initiative, saying:

“Sustainable food procurement isn’t just about better nutrition, it’s about where the food comes from, how it is produced and where it ends up.”

Three years later, his Department has said that it does not know how much publicly procured food is of British origin. Given that the Secretary of State is rightly seeking to atone for many of the failings of his predecessor, may we now expect him to get to grips with the whole issue of public procurement? There is £1.8 billion worth of publicly procured food bought in this country: surely that is the way for the Government to set an example to supermarkets and the food industry on how to reduce food miles.

I am trying to build on the successes of my predecessor in a range of important areas, including agriculture and the environment. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not mention the Sims report, because the issues of public procurement that he raises are very important. The report was published just two months ago and was an independent study by an experienced and respected business figure, who examined the whole £150 billion of public sector procurement and how it could be done more sustainably. I am also sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not refer to the commitments made not only by me, but by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to see the report and its recommendations through and deliver some of the gains that the hon. Gentleman wants to see.

Uncropped Field Margins

2. Whether he has made an assessment of the environmental and economic implications of requiring 2 m uncropped field margins. (86597)

I thank the Minister for that short answer. I am sure that he would wish to enhance and augment the rural environment, but I am not sure that that is the best way to do it. It tends to penalise farmers who have retained their hedges and helps farmers who have bulldozed them. If the Minister took the opportunity to inspect some of those field margins, he would see that they are choked with pernicious weeds such as soft broom, sterile broom, wild oats and, in the east of the country, blackgrass. When the combine harvesters spread those around the fields, it results in the need for much higher levels of pesticide usage on arable farms. Can the Minister think of some more imaginative ways of utilising the same amount of land to stimulate farmers to do something to make a positive impact on the rural environment?

It is interesting to be asked whether one has made an assessment and, when one says that one has, not then to be asked what it was before one gets the Opposition view. It is clear that cross-compliance measures impose a minimal burden on farmers, calculated to be of the order of only 2 per cent. of the single payment that they receive. That was for farmers who were not previously using what are generally accepted as good management practices. The fact is that most farmers did leave the 2 m margin, measured as it is from the centreline of the hedge. In respect of the environment and biodiversity considerations, the hon. Gentleman will know that as much as 70 per cent. of all the wildlife and biodiversity of a field is estimated to live in the hedgerow margin. Protecting them in that way is an essential part of delivering our 2010 targets.

It is important that farmers should do their bit to promote biodiversity. Will my hon. Friend the Minister therefore do more and go further to encourage environmentally friendly stewardship of the land by farmers?

We are looking at all sorts of ways to improve the management of our countryside and incentivise farmers to do so. There is a general consensus in the Chamber that cross-compliance and all the moves that have been made from pillar one to pillar two are ones that we would all support. We are moving in the right direction, which is paying farmers to provide public benefits, instead of the old system of paying for production, which disconnected farmers from their markets and was an inefficient way of doing things. However, it is essential that we have the flexibility to take into account the distinctive features of the English countryside, of which the hedgerow is one. I make no apology for protecting it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that with 71 per cent. of British butterflies and 44 per cent. of British moths in decline, hedgerows and field margins are critical to ensuring diversity? Those creatures, which are important to the farmer for the fertilisation of his crops, should be protected.

My hon. Friend makes the important point that biodiversity should be seen in terms of the whole ecosystem. The pollination services provided by butterflies and other insects that inhabit hedgerows and the margins of fields are essential. Our 2010 biodiversity targets state that we must increase the number of farmland birds. There is a severe decline in the food that they depend on and that they feed to their chicks—butterflies, caterpillars and so forth—which is part of the problem. It is essential that we look at this issue as part of the whole environment, and that we address it in the way that my hon. Friend suggests.

Ivory Trade

3. What Government policy on the ivory trade is expected to be at the meeting of the convention on international trade in endangered species standing committee in October; and if he will make a statement. (86598)

The United Kingdom Government will not have a vote at the standing committee in October. The UK will be represented as part of the European region, but the UK’s position continues to be that we support the international ban on trade in ivory.

I welcome that answer. Any reopening of the ivory trade—by stockpile sales or more widely—would simply create a smokescreen and trigger further poaching of elephants for their ivory, especially in central and west Africa and Asia, where resources for enforcement of anti-poaching measures are at their thinnest. Will the Minister ensure that such points are vigorously made at the CITES conference, and will he involve the International Fund for Animal Welfare in tackling what is becoming a very serious problem?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks. He highlighted stockpile sales, which is a critical issue to address. As he knows, there already is an international ban on the commercial trade in ivory, and the UK will not support any reopening of that trade. In 2002, the CITES parties drew a distinction between a general return to commercial ivory trade and one-off sales of legally acquired stockpiled ivory. The UK’s position is clear: we will not agree to the one-off sales going ahead unless all the conditions to prevent a damaging rise in elephant poaching and any increase in the illegal trade have been fully met. I can assure my hon. Friend that I have already met IFAW and discussed this subject. I have asked it to help me look at the statistics that will under-gird those decisions and to prepare a response for me. I look forward to receiving it.

Local Environment Quality

The Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 has given local authorities and others important new tools to improve the quality of people’s local environment. Other measures will ensure that the quality of air and water—already better than at any time since the industrial revolution—will continue to improve.

I hope that both you, Mr. Speaker, and the Minister can at some point—perhaps over the summer—visit the beautiful constituency of Colne Valley and see how our environment has been enhanced by the hard work of community groups such as the Friends of Beaumont Park, which is trying to create an eco-park. Would it not therefore be a great pity if the 2005 Act was not used to its fullest extent by local authorities to ensure that the hard work of community groups is not undermined and that the area is not inundated with fly-tipping, litter and graffiti?

Yes, and I will look at my diary to see whether I can fulfil my hon. Friend’s invitation during August, when I intend to spend quite a bit of time travelling the country extolling the benefits of the 2005 Act and encouraging local authorities—as she is rightly doing—to use the new powers that they have been given.

Will the Minister accept that the quality of our countryside is critical to the environment of the United Kingdom? Will he further accept that if we are to maintain the quality of our rural areas and our countryside, farmers need to be able to make a profit from what they produce on the land, and land has to be farmed? Currently, farmers are under huge pressure—dairy farmers in particular—not least from the major superstores. Will the Government take steps to protect the rural environment to ensure that our farmers, who work hard seven days a week—particularly if they are livestock farmers—are able to make a proper living and can maintain the countryside for the people of the United Kingdom?

The hon. Gentleman refers to lots of very important issues to do with rural areas and agriculture that are not strictly related to local environment quality. However, if you will bear with me, Mr. Speaker, I shall do my best to answer.

I agree that it is important that agriculture is put on a profitable footing, and that is the aim of the Government’s sustainable food and farming strategy. It is also very important that farmers are rewarded for the public benefits that they provide, and we are changing the way that agriculture is supported in this country to ensure that that happens. We accept that problems in certain sectors, such as the dairy sector, are making life very difficult for people. I know that the hon. Gentleman represents a lot of dairy farmers, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will take on board what he has said before speaking to the supermarkets later today.

The Local Government Act 2003 provided that local authorities employing litter wardens to enforce the litter laws could use the proceeds from fixed-penalty fines to pay them. Some authorities use those powers with great success, but many—including my own—do not use them at all. As a result, streets remain dirtier than they need be, or council tax payers have to pay enormous amounts of money to get litter cleared away. Will my hon. Friend write to the authorities that are not using the powers and encourage them to do so?

Yes, I shall be happy to do that, and to take the matter up with my hon. Friend’s local authority. It is a terrible shame when legislation that gains very strong support in this place, and which gives local authorities powers that they have asked for over many years, is not used. The powers in the 2003 Act enable authorities to deal with the sort of local environmental issues that really matter to people, but my hon. Friend is right to say that the fact that they are not used indirectly piles more costs on council tax payers as a whole.

Will the Minister look at the impact on the London environment of helicopter noise? It is probably the number one issue in my post bag at the moment. No one seems to know why there has been such a big increase in helicopter traffic over London, which does not appear to be monitored by any Government agency. The London assembly has conducted an inquiry, but it has barely scratched the surface. Will he speak to other Ministers about setting up a proper monitoring system for helicopter noise over London?

I suspect that the Leader of the Opposition might be making some contribution to the increase in helicopter noise, given his penchant for helicopter travel. However, I shall be delighted to investigate the matter and get some answers to the hon. Gentleman’s question. I have a London flat, and I have noticed exactly the phenomenon that he has described, with helicopters disturbing our peace and quiet by hanging in the air for hours on end. I have no idea what they are doing, and I shall be delighted to find out for the hon. Gentleman.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State made a speech that began with a reference to the great stink—not the one that is increasingly emanating from this discredited and sleaze-ridden Government, but the one in 1858 that led to the creation of the London sewer system. What action is the Department taking to improve the local environmental quality of the Lea valley in east London, where hundreds of thousands of tonnes of raw sewage are pumped into the Thames basin every year? Two years ago, a former Environment Minister said that doing nothing about the scandal was not an option. What has been done since, and what discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, bearing in mind the possible impact that that remnant of the great stink could have on the London Olympics?

I am informed that my hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, who is sitting on my left, has had such a meeting recently, and also that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), who is sitting on my right, has had a meeting with British Waterways on the matter. I am sure that both of my colleagues are determined to ensure, between them, that the development to which the hon. Gentleman refers is carried out in a sustainable way, and that the problems that the hon. Gentleman describes are addressed.

Local environment quality depends crucially on the Department’s expenditure on policing environmental crime and on flood defences. However, there have been reports recently that the Secretary of State has asked for expenditure cuts in the environmental parts of his budget in order to offset overruns in other areas, perhaps particularly single farm payments. Will the Minister say whether the Department is asking environmental budget holders, including the Environment Agency, to reduce their budget allocation? Will he tell the House the implications for the understanding that the Department reached with the Association of British Insurers to continue to provide insurance cover for more than 100,000 home owners at risk of flooding? Will he assure them that the allocations for flood defences will not be cut?

On the hon. Gentleman’s latter point, my hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment met the ABI recently. On his more general point, like all Departments, ours is constantly looking for ways of spending our money more effectively and efficiently. Inevitably, things come up such as the recent preparations to deal with the possible outbreak of avian flu and the problems of the single farm payment but, since we have been in power, the Government’s grant in aid to the Environment Agency, another issue to which he referred, has increased substantially from about £160 million to over £600 million a year.

Scallop Dredging (Lyme Bay)

5. What advice he has received from English Nature about damage caused to marine reefs in Lyme Bay as a result of scallop dredging. (86600)

English Nature has advised that increased scalloping is having a significant impact on important reef features and it has recommended the closure of 60 square miles of Lyme bay. I would prefer, and am still hoping, to find a voluntary solution to the problem, but if that proves impossible I am prepared to introduce compulsory measures to protect the local marine environment.

I am extremely delighted to hear that response. I hope that the Minister will reach a conclusion soon on that matter because the damage that is being caused to the reef system is having both an environmental and an economic impact on sea angling and diving, which are major factors for the tourism industry in south Devon.

I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I, too, want to reach a decision on the matter as soon as possible.

The northern Devon fishing industry is struggling at the moment to create and to promote itself as a sustainable fishery off Lundy and around the north Devon cost. There is worrying evidence that Belgium beam trawlers are changing to otter trawlers and hoovering up fish in the Bristol channel in a way wholly contrary to it remaining a sustainable fishery. Will the Minister look into that and do something about it if he finds that that practice is happening?

I will happily look into that, although I am not quite sure what it has to do with the English Nature's recommendation on Lyme bay.

I did not feel that that answer was very helpful from the Minister. I want to know how long it will take him to decide whether to support what Devon Wildlife Trust and English Nature have asked for, which is the enforcement of a no-dredging zone covering 10 per cent. of Lyme bay, although when I googled DEFRA and indecision, I got 699 hits on badger culling, TB in cattle, partial payments, coastal access, greyhound welfare, delaying the marine Bill—

Emissions Trading Schemes

Thanks to strong UK leadership during our G8 and EU presidencies, the international framework is now in place to deliver actions such as emissions trading that are needed to combat climate change.

I have already announced the UK’s proposal for the next period of the EU’s emissions trading scheme, delivering additional savings of 8 million tonnes of carbon each year. Emissions trading is here to stay and the Government are committed to making it work and to extending it to new sectors, as well as exporting its benefits to other parts of the world that may be interested. Our actions to date have given us leverage as we press for a new international agreement on stabilising carbon emissions.

It is obviously welcome that some progress was made at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg on issues that were on the agenda, but what are the prospects of getting countries outside the European Union involved in such a scheme? There has been talk about a wider international scheme for some time, and Britain has been taking the lead on the issue, but matters are moving forward fairly slowly—they need to be brought forward much more quickly. I would be grateful if the Minister indicated what progress has been made outside Europe as well as within the European Union.

I share wholeheartedly my hon. Friend’s commitment to the urgency and importance of moving forward. I can say two things. First, Australian states, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Switzerland, Norway and a number of US states are introducing emissions trading schemes, which is interesting evidence of the progress of the idea. Secondly, I can assure him that in the Gleneagles dialogue that will continue in Mexico in October and then at the Nairobi conference of the United Nations in November, the Government will be pushing hard to build consensus on the importance of the international stabilisation goals in respect of carbon dioxide and to take forward the agenda on the global mechanisms, which include all the major players, for finding the most cost-effective ways of reducing emissions, which we must do sooner rather than later.

The Secretary of State will recognise the importance of persuading the US Administration to engage positively on the issues of climate change and emissions trading. Given that we have discovered this week that the special relationship seems, shall we say, a little one-sided, how confident is he that British efforts to persuade the Bush Administration to take a responsible lead in global emissions trading will be met by more than a shrug and a yo?

I have to say that, even for a sleepy Thursday before a summer recess, that was pretty hard work. I say three things to the hon. Gentleman. First, it is important that we keep up the pressure at all levels—at governmental level, and, as I said in the Environmental Audit Committee yesterday, at business level and state level. He will know that 240 US cities are now party to the Kyoto agreement, covering 45 million citizens. Secondly, in respect of the intergovernmental level, we are working hard as part of the Gleneagles dialogue—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) keeps on shouting from a sedentary position, “How?” He obviously does not know that Governments speak to each other and that they have a process that leads to decisions being made at a certain time. It would be foolish of me to announce decisions in advance of meetings—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman listened, he might learn something. It would be foolish of me to announce decisions now that will be taken at meetings in October and November.

Thirdly, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) asked about confidence. I am confident that there is a growing global recognition of the urgency of this problem and that every part of the world will have to be part of the solution. Obviously, it is up to individual politicians to make the final decision about how they participate, but I am confident that the UK Government are exercising maximum leverage in every way to ensure that we get the change that we need.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that a variety of options have been applied under the EU emissions trading scheme. For example, the Germans have chosen a fuel and technology-specific option, which has stimulated 11GW of investment in new clean coal technology. Has my right hon. Friend seen the paper provided by the clean coal task group, which suggests that the option in Britain will be biased in favour of gas? Will he look at that paper and meet the group with a view to bringing in an even playing field so that we get the investment in clean coal technology that is required?

My hon. Friend raised an important point. I have not seen the paper, but I will make sure that it is in my box this weekend. I will look carefully at the best way of taking this forward. My hon. Friend will know that the energy review made strong commitments both to clean coal and, critically, to what is known as carbon capture and storage technology. After all, the Chinese are opening one new coal-fired power station every four days. It is essential, given the global nature of the problem, that technological developments such as carbon capture and storage, which offer the prospect of clean-coal energy production, are taken forward, not at the expense of energy efficiency measures, which are also critical, but as a complement to them.

As the Government’s plans for new nuclear power hinge on an attractive carbon price, how does the Secretary of State propose to reform the emissions trading system to ensure that there is a guaranteed floor price?

The hon. Gentleman knows that, although there were predictions of doom when the figures for the first year of operation of the ETS were announced, it is significant that those predictions have not come to pass in respect of the carbon price. It has been relatively stable. The key is obviously phase 3 of the scheme after 2012. The United Kingdom Government will work closely with environmental groups and the business sector, which I have met already, to ensure that we have an independent, properly monitored and effective system for the EU ETS. In that context, it is significant that the European Commission has said that no caps for phase 2 will be below the current level of emissions. So scarcity will be built into the system. All caps will need to be consistent with the Kyoto protocol, which is also important.

Environment Agency (Grant in Aid)

7. What the total grant in aid paid to the Environment Agency for (a) fisheries work and (b) navigation was in 2002-03 and is in 2006-07; and what its income from rod licences and boat registrations was in each year. (86602)

The agency spent £9.8 million of its grant in aid in England and Wales on fisheries and £7 million on navigation in 2002-03, and is currently intending to spend £9.4 million and about £12 million respectively in 2006-07. For the same periods, income from rod licences was £16.1 million and £20 million respectively, and income from navigation registrations was £3.3 million and £4.2 million.

The Minister will be aware that the wholly unwelcome cut of £400,000 in the fisheries budget threatens adversely to affect the ability of the Environment Agency to combat the spread of lethal fish diseases such as the koi herpes virus, several outbreaks of which have occurred in the UK recently. On behalf of Britain’s 3.5 million anglers, may I ask the Minister what action he proposes to take to prevent the spread of KHV, which is the aquatic equivalent of foot and mouth disease?

My hon. Friend, who is a champion in the House for the angling community, is absolutely right. The situation with carp herpes is serious, and in view of the latest developments it is my intention, subject to discussions with the devolved Administrations, to make KHV a notifiable disease.

In view of the current drought and extremely high temperatures, what measures is the Minister taking to ensure that abstraction is kept at a manageable level and that our rivers are able to retain a healthy invertebrate and aquatic environment for the fish, mammals and birds that rely on it?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about some of the environmental effects of the current hot weather, which include carp herpes, which becomes a problem only above a certain temperature. As the temperature of lakes and rivers in the UK is rising above that temperature for the first time this year, there are some challenging situations. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; water companies have a duty, especially in weather conditions such as these, to think carefully about levels of abstraction so that they do not make the already challenging environmental situation in rivers and lakes worse.

Biomass Task Force

8. What actions fall to be taken by his Department in the implementation of the Government’s response to the recommendations of the Biomass Task Force. (86603)

The Department, in close liaison with the Department of Trade and Industry, is actively engaged in driving forward the implementation of all the actions in the Government’s response to the Biomass Task Force report.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but are the Government seriously committed? What serious capital grant is available for the biomass supply chain, whether from crops, trees or waste?

Yes, the Government are seriously committed to increasing biomass production. Our biomass capital grant scheme is allocating between £10 million and £15 million over the next couple of years; £66 million has been allocated to develop markets in biomass combined heat and power electricity generation and £80 million is available for microgeneration, which will include biomass technologies. There is a range of projects that we believe can come on stream. We would like to see the prediction in Ben Gill’s report that biomass could actually meet 6 per cent. of heat and electricity generation by 2020 fulfilled.

Biomass has greater potential to replace fossil fuels than biofuels, in the short term at least, yet it attracts little attention and less publicity. Have the Government made an assessment of the establishment grants paid to farmers and landowners to plant biomass, such as short-term coppice crops and miscanthus? Although I understood that the bio-energy infrastructure scheme was taking no further applications, the Government have stated that they might take a further round of applications. Will the Minister make a statement about that?

I have already outlined a number of schemes that the Government are introducing to help to encourage the growth of the biomass sector. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the importance of biofuels, too. We need an increase on the current generating figures of 1 per cent. of heat and 1.85 per cent. of electricity from biomass sources, and we can achieve that by helping to stimulate the market through Government measures.

As for the grant schemes for the growing of, for instance, miscanthus and short rotation coppice, they have been part of the rural development programme. We are negotiating and agreeing with the Commission a new rural development programme and we want to see encouragement for biomass as part of that programme.

Following on from the earlier question, are the Government now looking more favourably at wood coppice rather than miscanthus? Is that the Government’s policy? There are some fears among growers that that is the way that the Government are going.

As a Government, we do not particularly take a view on whether miscanthus or short-rotation coppice or other biomass sources—for instance, woodchip—are favoured. We have a regime in place that will encourage the further development and growth of the biomass sector in the future. We believe that there is a lot more that the Government can do to encourage and stimulate the growth of renewables in this country and that renewables must be a vital part of our future energy mix.

Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the work of Ben Gill, who is a constituent of mine in the Vale of York? Will he recognise that that work must now progress with some urgency, given that the British Sugar factory in York is due to close next year? The issue is not just about willow coppice—as the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) said—but about exploring ways of turning sugar beet into bioethanol. That work must now proceed with some urgency.

I certainly pay tribute to the work of Sir Ben Gill. I had the pleasure of taking part in a meeting at the Royal show, which Ben chaired. In his typical, robust manner, he explained the importance of biomass to the future of agriculture across the United Kingdom. There are strong opportunities for the farming community to do more in the biomass sector. The hon. Lady mentioned sugar beet. She will probably be aware of a current project in Norfolk that is looking to grow sugar beet to produce bioethanol. That should come on stream in the near future. With the renewable transport fuels obligation coming into force from 2008 to 2010, there will be big opportunities for growers to contract supply to people who will generate biofuels.

I agree with the Minister’s comment that there is a lot more that the Government can do in this area. On reflection, is not the Minister slightly embarrassed that the energy review made only the briefest mention in passing of small and medium-scale biomass and bioenergy generation, despite increasingly clear evidence that that smaller-scale generation offers a more efficient, economical, decentralised and secure renewable source? It has huge potential, as the Biomass Task Force rightly identified. Is it not true that in the area of biocrops and bio-energy, even the United States under George Bush is doing more on the ground than this Government?

If the hon. Gentleman looks in detail at the energy review, he will see that biomass features in the section on renewables and the section on transport. I repeat that the Government are taking forward a wide programme of action when it comes to biomass. We have identified some 65 actions that we need to take as a Government in response to Sir Ben Gill’s report. We are getting on with it. We believe that the biomass market is growing and we have in place a package of measures to ensure that we help to stimulate further that demand.

Supermarket Carrier Bags

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on introducing a tax on supermarket carrier bags. (86605)

We have regular discussions with colleagues about incentives for more sustainable living. The Treasury has assessed the Irish plastic bags tax, following its introduction in 2002, and has concluded that there is no clear evidence that a tax would be effective on environmental grounds.

The Labour-led Scottish Parliament is undertaking a major review of the suitability of introducing a plastic carrier bag tax to reduce the number of the bags that are used and wasted each year. Given that the report is due in October 2006, and that the Irish carrier bag tax is completing its fourth year, will my hon. Friend commit to examining again the arguments in favour of a carrier bag tax when we come back from the summer recess?

I am not waiting until I come back from the summer recess. I spend a lot of time with officials discussing the merits or otherwise of a plastic bag tax. Indeed, we are working closely with colleagues in the Scottish Executive, who are still unconvinced of the environmental merits. The Irish Government are yet to conduct a proper review of the effectiveness of their plastic bag tax. Although we all share my hon. Friend’s desire to reduce the unnecessary number of plastic bags that people use and discard when they shop, the whole life cycle analysis of the environmental efficacy of a plastic bag tax shows that it would not be as convincing as one might superficially think.

Will the Minister be bold enough to tell colleagues in the Treasury that although there might not be environmental benefits, a tax on plastic bags would be broadly welcomed by people in this country and would send a real signal that we were serious about waste and the environment? Just go and tell the Treasury that!

I am very grateful for my hon. Friend’s advice—[Hon. Members: “Career advice.”] Yes, perhaps his career advice was not as sound as his advice about other things usually is. I agree with him that some kind of measure to deal with the profusion of plastic bags in circulation would be popular. The women’s institute, before which we should all genuflect, recommended such a thing just a few weeks ago. However, I repeat my point that was so well received by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton). We can examine the overall economic benefits of the tax as it has been introduced in Ireland, where people have started to use more black bin liners and paper bags as substitutes. In the overall scheme of things, the impact on the environment has not necessarily been positive, but we keep the matter under review, and I accept the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) makes about the tax’s possible popularity.


From 1997 to 2005, we landfilled an estimated total of 100.8 million tonnes of biodegradable municipal waste. From 2001-02, which is the first year for which we have reliable figures, to 2004-05, we reduced the amount of that waste sent to landfill from 15.7 million tonnes to 13.9 million tonnes, thanks to the considerable efforts of the Government, local authorities and the public to recycle more waste.

It is welcome that the amount of landfill is being reduced due to an increase in recycling. Conservative local authorities consistently top the league of recycling rates. Why are there such big discrepancies between regions, with the north-east recycling 16 per cent. and the east recycling 29 per cent.? Will the Minister confirm that the Government are still committed to their target of reducing landfill to 75 per cent. of the 1995 production levels by 2010? Will they achieve that not by cheating—by having to export recyclables to China and other places—but by encouraging more close-to-home recycling in this country, less waste and less packaging in the first place?

Yes, we want to do all those things. We are confident, although I acknowledge that the landfill targets that we have to meet in 2010 are extremely challenging and will require local authorities, the public and the Government to play their part. However, I was disappointed that the hon. Gentleman made a party political point because his Conservative local authorities are very poor performers on recycling. With the exception of one, they have all failed to meet their recycling targets, and we have had to intervene with one of them to discuss why.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Wakefield’s Labour council on its magnificent 28 per cent. recycling target? The council is in discussions with his officials about the financing of a new private finance initiative facility to help us to drive further the recycling target to 50 per cent. Will he do everything in his power to ensure that we get the new facility, which is desperately needed for the entire Wakefield district?

Yes, I am happy to congratulate my hon. Friend’s Labour-controlled authority, which, in contrast to the Conservative-run local authorities mentioned by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), exceeded its recycling targets this year. It has done extremely well, and officials from my Department will meet officials from my hon. Friend’s local authority next week to discuss the issue that she raises. I think that she will appreciate, too, that the Government have provided considerable support not just to her authority, but to many local authorities across the country, to help them to meet those admirable recycling targets.

Significant progress has been made by local authorities in recycling domestic waste, but there is a complete blind spot with regard to trade waste, for which they do not have any responsibility. There are disincentives for companies to separate their waste at source. Companies in the restaurant and bar trade produce huge amounts of recyclable material that simply goes into the normal waste stream, and that is not sensible. Will the Under-Secretary address that problem as a matter of urgency?

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important matter, which is one of the critical issues that we will address when we publish our revised waste strategy in the autumn, as a result of the consultation that we are carrying out. However, it would be wrong to give the impression that trade and commercial waste is not recycled, as a greater proportion of trade and commercial waste is recycled or reused than municipal waste. Although we want to raise levels for both, it would be wrong to suggest that all commercial and business waste simply goes into landfill—it does not. Again, the amount going into landfill has fallen dramatically.

Despite progress, we still lag far behind the rest of Europe in minimisation, reuse and recycling. Less waste is going to landfill, but under Government direction, in the next few years, there will be a massive increase in incineration across the country. Was it not deeply disappointing that the energy review, which is so timid and lacking in substance in its support for renewables, simply paid lip service to energy from waste, which was discussed in only one small box? It did not have anything new to say, and it did not make a single new proposal on the subject. Does not that depressing policy vacuum on progressive EFW confirm what we already suspected—that Government thinking on waste and incineration is still dominated by a backward-looking, outdated, unambitious, burn-and-be-done-with-it mentality?

I am trying to work out the point the hon. Gentleman was trying to make. If it was about the need for extra energy from waste capacity, yes, the Government accept that. If he was trying to make the opposite point, I have to tell him that I am often lobbied by Opposition Members who want more energy from waste. He is quite wrong to suggest that we did not feature energy from waste as a potential renewable energy source in the energy review—we did so, and our Department made darned sure that we did.

Carbon Emissions

12. What assessment he has made of the contribution which could be made by farmers to reducing the UK’s carbon emissions. (86610)

The agriculture and forestry sector accounts for approximately 1 per cent. of carbon dioxide emissions. Farmers are contributing to the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions through the growing of dedicated energy crops, the planting of new trees, and the growing of crops for the production of biofuels.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but is he aware that many of my farmers can no longer afford the capital investment needed to put a windmill on top of their house to generate power for their property? Oil prices are rising across the world, so is it not about time that the Government took biofuels seriously and started to invest capital in the marketplace, in order to expand it? Are any grants available to my farmers that would allow that switching process to take place rapidly?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we have to encourage farmers—and, indeed, everyone—to make that transition. He will have heard the remarks that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), made earlier about the biomass capital grant scheme. In addition, the EU’s annual €45 per hectare energy aid payment is available to farmers for purpose-grown energy crops that are grown on non-set-aside land. The Government do, in fact, take the issue extremely seriously, and in order to develop further the supply of biofuels, a renewable transport fuels obligation will be introduced in 2008. It will require 5 per cent. of fuels sold in the UK to come from a renewable source by 2010. I hope that that offers my hon. Friend and farmers in his constituency the encouragement that they need.

Many farmers have been encouraged to have wind farms on their land on the basis that it is environmentally friendly, but of course it is not carbon-free. Has the Minister made any assessment of the carbon emissions caused by onshore wind farms?

No, I have not made any assessment, but I am sure the Department has and I would be happy to send the hon. Gentleman the statistics that we have on the matter. I am glad to hear support for wind farms coming from all parts of the House, because the Leader of the Opposition is famously known for referring to them as “bird blenders”, which does not exactly encourage people to adopt the technology.


13. What additional measures his Department has assessed to increase public awareness of the positive steps people can take to support biodiversity. (86611)

We are encouraging people throughout the country to do their bit for biodiversity. Reducing household pollutants and disposing of them properly makes water cleaner and protects aquatic habitats. Recycling rubbish reduces landfill and the pressure on surrounding land. Volunteering and gardening encourage native wildlife. These are small actions, but they can make a big difference.

I am sure my hon. Friend knows that the general population are unaware of the small things that they can do to help biodiversity. In a press statement, he challenged people to do their bit for biodiversity. Unfortunately, the measures suggested will not reach the general population. Will my hon. Friend consider what additional steps he can take to ensure that the general public realise the small things they can do to help the environment?

Yes, absolutely. I am happy to take up that challenge from my hon. Friend because it is important not just that we know what can be done, but that we publicise that and help people to become aware of the small incremental steps that they can take in their own lives. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently spoke about the fact that the personal carbon footprint accounts for 40 per cent. of the country’s carbon footprint. We must be able to communicate to people the impact of their actions, so I shall take up my hon. Friend’s challenge.

The Minister mentioned gardens. Does he agree with the pop star Kim Wilde, who said this week that gardens have become a refuge for threatened wildlife? Given that our 15 million gardens represent a greater area than all our nature reserves put together, is it right that gardens are first in line for development?

I want to take up the serious point that the hon. Gentleman makes, without straying, as he tempts me to do, into planning matters, which are not properly my domain. The point that he makes is of fundamental importance. All of us who are privileged to have gardens have a responsibility to consider what we can do to generate habitats for wildlife and to make our gardens as environmentally friendly as we can. That is the important message that the hon. Gentleman is trying to get across, and I wholeheartedly agree with him.

Bovine Tuberculosis

We launched our 10-year strategy in March last year. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that the latest figures show a 34 per cent. reduction in cattle TB in Gloucestershire, his county, in the first five months of this year.

I thank my hon. Friend for his optimistic approach. It is fair to say that the problem will not go away. We have taken farmers up the hill in the expectation that there will be a new strategy, and there has been a massive consultation, which resulted in overwhelming opposition to a large-scale cull. We cannot leave it at that, but it is pleasing to hear that there are changes afoot. Perhaps that is to do with the nature of the testing, or perhaps it is to do with cattle-to-cattle transfer. The Government must say something about what their strategy will be, and I hope that will be not long delayed.

I did not mean to sound optimistic. I was simply stating a fact to my hon. Friend, and I am well aware of the potential for the figures to go back up again. Until we get a better understanding of what has caused the sudden and dramatic fall in new bovine TB cases, it would not be reasonable for him to expect the Government to make a decision one way or another on badger culling.

May I inform the Minister that in the part of my constituency near the Welsh border—Minsterley and Pontesbury—there has been a huge rise in the number of bovine TB cases among the cattle of my local farmers, who are extremely concerned about it? Will he meet a delegation of Shrewsbury farmers to give them an opportunity to express their concerns to him?

Yes, I would be happy to meet a delegation of his constituents, although I would be extremely surprised if his area was unique in not having experienced a significant fall in bovine TB in the first five months of this year. I will check the figures, which I do not have to hand, and let him have them. There has been a 20 per cent. fall nationally, and the fall has been even more dramatic in some of the worst hot spots.

May I ask my hon. Friend not to rush into a decision on this very important issue? I do not think that there is any support in this House or among the general public for a mass cull. Where are we as regards developing a vaccine for this terrible disease?

We are already conducting field trials of a badger vaccine, and we are working out the best way of conducting similar trials on cattle. I do not think that my hon. Friend is right when he says that there is no support in this House for a cull of badgers. That is the official policy of the Conservatives and of the Liberal Democrats, but they have not quite explained how they would do it in an effective and sustainable way.

Business of the House

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 24 July—Second Reading of the Welfare Reform Bill.

Tuesday 25 July—Motion on the retirement of the Clerk of the House, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, followed by motion on the summer recess Adjournment.

The House will not adjourn until Royal Assent has been received to any Act.

The business for the week following the summer recess will be as follows:

Monday 9 October—Remaining stages of the Road Safety Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 10 October—Second Reading of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill.

Wednesday 11 October—Opposition Day [18th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 12 October—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Civil Aviation Bill, followed by a debate on climate change on a motion for the adjournment of the House.

Friday 13 October—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 16 October will include:

Monday 16 October—Opposition Day [19th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats. Subject to be announced.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 12 October and 19 October will be:

Thursday 12 October—A debate on the report from the International Development Committee on the WTO Hong Kong ministerial conference and the Doha development agenda.

Thursday 19 October—A debate on the 28th annual House of Commons Commission report.

I should like to remind the House that it agreed to sit from 11.30 am on Tuesday 25 July, and there will be no business next Tuesday in Westminster Hall.

I should also like to tell the House that the state opening of Parliament will be on Wednesday 15 November.

The House will rise at the end of business on 25 July and return on Monday 9 October. I have given serious consideration to the points made by Members on both sides of the House regarding the accountability of Government during the summer recess. I am pleased to inform the House that later today I intend to table a motion and an explanatory memorandum that will allow for the tabling and answering of named day questions and, if there is a need, written ministerial statements on specified days during the first two weeks of September. This information will thereafter be printed in the Official Report.

Before closing, Mr. Speaker, I should like to take the opportunity to wish all Members of the House a productive summer recess in which they are able to see their families for a normal holiday period, and then able, as colleagues on both sides of the House always do, to devote time to their constituencies. I also give my thanks to the staff of the House for their continued support and to staff in Government Departments who provide briefings for my weekly business statement—although of course the answers are entirely my responsibility.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall respond to everything that the Leader of the House set out—the business for next week and after the recess and the statement about recess questions.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s announcement that hon. Members will be able to table written questions during the recess, albeit for a limited period. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) raised the matter in business questions on 21 July 2005 at column 1415 of Hansard, when he asked for immediate action. It was not quite immediate, but at least something has happened and the Leader of the House is to be congratulated on that. However, will he confirm that the extension for written questions includes those to the Home Office and that the Department will respond fully in the time set out? May I urge him to go further? What plans has he to extend the opportunities to ask written questions during the summer recess in future? He also announced provision for written ministerial statements. In the absence of the Order Paper, what plans has he to alert hon. Members to the statements either when they are made or through advance notice?

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for next week and the week after the recess. Yesterday, I welcomed his decision to change today’s business to enable the House to debate the growing crisis in the middle east. As that crisis develops, a further statement might well be needed before the recess. Will the Foreign Secretary come to the House next week to update hon. Members on the situation and the Government’s position?

Sadly, today’s debate has meant postponing the debate on international development. We previously had such a debate in Government time a year ago, on Africa. Will the Leader of the House give us an assurance that there will be a debate on international development as soon as possible after our return from the recess and certainly before the end of the Session?

On Tuesday, many hon. Members were lobbied by constituents about cuts in physiotherapy services. I met Kate from Twyford, who told me that 2,500 physiotherapists will graduate this year and probably only 250 will get jobs because of cuts in the national health service. Last year, the Government encouraged universities to increase training places for physiotherapists. This year, more than 2,000 graduates will fail to get a job. When we return, may we have a debate on physiotherapy services?

May we also have a debate in the autumn on Britain’s influence in the world? Today’s debate will concentrate on the middle east, but, on our role in world affairs, I was struck by the exchange between the Prime Minister and the President of the United States, which was reported earlier this week at the G8 summit. The Prime Minister offered to visit the middle east to

“try and see what the lie of the land is”.

The reply was:

“I think Condi is going to go pretty soon.”

What did Prime Minister say?

“Well, it’s only if, I mean, you know, if she’s got a, or if she needs the ground prepared, as it were. Because obviously if she goes out, she’s got to succeed, if it were, whereas I can go out and just talk.”

What a revelation. That was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom speaking. First, it tells us what we have always known: the Prime Minister does not do anything, he simply talks. Secondly, what does it say about the UK? My noble Friend Lord Hurd once described Britain as punching above its weight in foreign affairs. Today, the Prime Minister sees himself as the warm-up act for the US Secretary of State. We need a debate on our role in the world.

May we also have a debate on ministerial responsibilities? A review of four Departments has shown significant failure to deliver. On ability to plan resources, prioritise and deliver value for money, setting aside the Home Office’s poor performance, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Department for Work and Pensions were

“Not well placed to address weaknesses, urgent action needed.”

The Prime Minister’s response was to say that the Departments’ central headquarters would now focus on

“high-level strategy and priority setting, managing performance and tackling failure and building up skills”.

What on earth have they been doing for the past nine years?

Speaking of reviews, when the Government were first elected in 1997, the Prime Minister made much of his commitment to produce an annual report each year. On 18 July 2001, he said:

“In respect of annual reports, it is important that we set out the Government’s achievements and lack of achievements in whichever year we are in power.”—[Official Report, 18 July 2001; Vol. 372, c. 280.]

The last annual report was published in 2000. When will the next one be published? May we have a debate before the end of the Session on the Government’s record over the past year and a half?

As we are approaching the summer recess, I do not want to over-burden civil servants with this task, so I shall offer some suggestions on what the Government’s annual report might cover. It could include U-turns on home information packs, self-assessment tax returns, council tax revaluation, prison building, sentencing policy and police mergers. It could cover abandoned projects such as hospital star ratings, regional assemblies and the abolition of the Lord Chancellor. Further subjects might include the information technology projects left in chaos at the Child Support Agency, the Rural Payments Agency, the Criminal Records Bureau, the Passport Office and the NHS—

I am sure that the Leader of the House will ensure that all those issues will be addressed in the debate that, I hope, he will offer us on what the Government have been doing over the past year and a half. However, of all the areas in which we know that the Government have failed, we need to address the problems with the ID card scheme, the fact that fewer pupils from state schools are going to university, hospital closures, the wider gap between rich and poor, and the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister is a laughing stock, the Prime Minister is a lame duck and the Government are in paralysis. I wish the Leader of the House and all right hon. and hon. Members a very happy and productive summer recess, and I join the Leader of the House in thanking the staff for all that they have done to support us over the past year.

I thank the shadow Leader of the House very much for her remarks and compliments, which I take in the spirit in which they were intended. I hope that one of the things that she does over the recess will be to sack the person who writes her lines. I say that in a spirit of great affection for the right hon. Lady, but, honestly, after putting her up to do that awful number on pop song titles—which turned out to be inaccurate—and now this stuff, he really ought to be sacked.

I shall now deal with the questions that the right hon. Lady raised. She asked whether notice of written ministerial statements would appear in advance, and the answer is yes. Notice will appear in the normal way in the Questions Book—the blues attached to the Order Paper—alongside the notice of questions. I will also talk to the Clerks Office, to the right hon. Lady and to the Liberal spokesman, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), about whether we can arrange for Members to receive electronic notice, particularly of the written ministerial statements, as Members will be at a distance. I want to ensure that this experiment works.

The right hon. Lady asked whether there would be an opportunity for a statement on the crisis in the middle east. The answer is that there are Foreign Office questions next Tuesday, so hon. Members will have every opportunity to question my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and her ministerial colleagues. The right hon. Lady also asked whether there would be a debate on international development before the end of the parliamentary Session. The answer is that we hope so, but, given the other pressures on the parliamentary timetable and the buffers of the Queen’s Speech, I cannot guarantee it. However, we will do our very best to have such a debate either soon or in the run-up to the Queen’s Speech, this side of the year.

The right hon. Lady made some remarks about the health service. I have been looking at the health service in her own constituency. There is greater competition for jobs in health care because we have greatly increased the number of places available. There used to be complaints that we were recruiting so many people from overseas. These days, thanks to the dramatic increase in places for nurses, for doctors, for paramedics and for physiotherapists, most recruitment can take place in the UK. Yes, of course there is competition, but I simply do not believe these statements that thousands of new staff will be unemployed. That is not the case at all. Meanwhile, I note that, in the Windsor, Ascot and Maidenhead Primary Care Trust, there has been a 5.2 per cent. increase above inflation in real terms in a single year, and that the trust received three stars for its latest performance. In the same area, waiting lists are down by 10 per cent. since June 2002. It is very odd that that was not mentioned just now.

In relation to the Home Office capability review, the right hon. Lady did not mention an increase of 440 in the number of police officers in her area and, of course, a big drop in crime. She did mention the DFES. Astonishing additional resources have been devoted to education, with primary school and secondary school results both up. She criticised the DWP’s capability review, as a result of which unemployment in her area has been cut by more than half in nine years and long-term unemployment by two thirds.

Lastly, the right hon. Lady asked about a debate on Britain’s influence in the world, which I would be absolutely delighted to have. I make no criticism of one of my distinguished predecessors, both as Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary, Lord Hurd, but it is impossible to survey the past nine years without recognising that Britain’s influence in Europe, the middle east and across the world has greatly extended and increased compared with the previous 18 years.

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 2601, tabled in my name and that of many other Members?

[That this House calls on insurance companies to take action to reduce the travel insurance premiums charged to people who have suffered from serious diseases such as cancer; notes that premiums for people in such a position can be many times higher than otherwise quoted; and calls for action to be taken to lower premiums so that insurance costs do not prohibit former patients from travelling abroad.]

The early-day motion concerns the excessive charges that insurance companies make to clients who want to go abroad and who have had serious illnesses but are in remission. For example, James Timmons in my constituency, whose case is highlighted in the Daily Record today, received a minimum quote of £350 for insurance cover to go on holiday. That is more than the price of the holiday. May we have a debate on this issue?

I commend my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. The truth is that it is our poorer constituents who get ripped off in this way. I am glad that he has raised the matter, and I will be pleased to draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who has responsibility for regulating the insurance industry.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business. I am delighted that, even at this stage in the Session, it is not too late to introduce a new Home Office Bill, the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill, on Tuesday 10 October.

I think that the Government intend to move a carry-over motion for the Welfare Reform Bill on 24 July. Carry-over is normally by agreement between all parties, so some discussions are necessary before the motion is moved. Before we get to that point, will the Leader of the House ensure that the Committee stage of that very important Bill is not truncated by Prorogation or for any other reason? Secondly, can it be ensured that the Committee has the necessary draft orders, which form a large part of the substance of the Bill, from the start of its proceedings?

I welcome the Leader of the House’s comments about questions during this over-long recess. The ability to put questions is important, and the ability of the Government to answer them equally so. Their record is not good over recent years. I put a named day question to the Home Office, inevitably, for 3 May, and did not receive a reply, which said that it was not prepared to answer me, until 13 July. The Treasury is even worse. My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) tabled 15 questions for answer on the very important matter of fraud in the tax credits system, and received a single reply on Wednesday that did not answer the specific points raised. This is a key issue. If we are to hold the Government to account, there must be an understanding among Ministers and civil servants about what comprises an adequate response to a parliamentary question. Will he speak to his Cabinet colleagues and the head of the home civil service to ensure that proper answers are given?

I welcome this afternoon’s debate on foreign affairs. It is essential that we debate the grave situation in the middle east.

Let me say in response to what was said by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that there has been a change of emphasis in Foreign Office policy even since Monday, when the Minister for the Middle East, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), made what I thought was an extremely well-balanced statement to the House. We heard the Prime Minister’s replies on the same subject yesterday. As I have said in a speech on home affairs, we are not a wholly owned subsidiary of the United States, and our foreign policy must not appear to be dictated by the White House. That is an important issue, and I hope the debate will explore it.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman will spend the recess on his soap box in Blackburn; I will spend it undertaking my usual tour of the 120 or so villages in my constituency. I know already that the questions I will be asked will be about closures of sub-post offices, the state of agriculture, police amalgamations, and the fact that although record amounts are being spent on the health service, hospital wards are still being closed.

Will the Leader of the House ensure that on our return we debate all those important issues, so that I can tell my constituents “Fear not, your concerns will be raised as soon as Parliament resumes in October”?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the introduction of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill. It has been a difficult Bill to get right. I began the process back in 1997, after the Southall train crash. I hope the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind his welcome for the Bill when his colleagues next start delivering cheap shots about the number of Home Office Bills that have appeared over the past nine years. They say that there have been 54 of them, and indeed there have. The question is, which of those Bills should not have been passed?

It is helpful to have that on the record. Many of the Bills that the hon. Gentleman voted against are the ones that are protecting our citizens and helping us to reduce crime. I am glad to have secured that admission from him.

The Welfare Reform Bill is one of two measures that we intend to carry over. I hope that that can be agreed, but if it cannot, it cannot. The purpose of carry-over has been accepted by the House, and it is very sensible. It should be borne in mind that it does not make it any easier for Government to pass legislation, because we have to ensure that it is passed within 12 months of the date of its introduction; and of course the Bill will have a normal Committee stage.

I recall hearing my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions say that he would do his best to ensure that the principal draft orders were presented to the House, but I do not think he said that all of them would be. I will pass on to him what the hon. Gentleman has said.

As for Home Office questions, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is present to make his daily statement or speech to the House. I am sure we all welcome that, but only those of us who have held my right hon. Friend’s portfolio quite understand how it feels to wake up each morning and hear five stories about the Home Office, one of which you may know about, four of which you have not the first idea about, and all five of which you must answer for during the rest of the day. Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend heard what the hon. Gentleman said about the backlog of questions, and I can say on his behalf that he and his colleagues have made every effort to clear it.

Ministers and officials must recognise the need for questions to be answered, but Members must recognise—and I am pleased to say that it has been recognised in all parts of the House—that if the Order Paper is overloaded with questions in industrial quantities, tabled by researchers and in some instances unseen by the Members concerned, there are bound to be logjams. It is a real problem. I am glad to see that Members agree with that.

I am assiduous, as are all my colleagues, in ensuring that questions are answered whenever possible, but we have a problem in the House with researchers trying to prove a point, and with the website, which seems to measure Members’ work in quantitative rather than qualitative terms. That is an issue for the whole House, not just for Ministers.

As for my soap box in Blackburn, I was indeed on it on Saturday and, I am pleased to say, received approbation—as ever—for what had happened on 8 July, after 18 years of my campaigning and being given the raspberry. In 1998 my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson), then Secretary of State for Health, announced that there would be a new hospital in Blackburn. It has now been built, £140 million has been spent on it, and on 8 July it opened for business. That was a great day for a Labour Government and the people of Blackburn.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill. It will be warmly welcomed, particularly in the workplace. I am especially pleased to learn that Scottish measures will be included, because I believe that in Scotland we have one of the highest rates of industrial death and injury. It is important for the Bill to complete its passage. My right hon. Friend mentioned the possibility of a carry-over; it is clear from the timetable that he has announced today that that will be necessary, and I hope that he will make every effort to ensure that it happens.

I guarantee that the Bill will be carried over, and I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes it. I should explain that while many aspects of criminal law are devolved, the Bill involves health and safety, and the House decided in the Scotland Act 1998 that those matters were reserved. There has, however, been substantial consultation with the Scottish Executive.

The Government’s avowed intention is to create further rail freight interchanges. I have met 400-odd constituents who are extremely concerned about the possibility of a 3.5 million sq ft interchange in the constituency. I would welcome an urgent debate on the future of rail freight and the positioning of rail freight interchanges, and I hope very much that the Government will have time to provide one.

The hon. Lady raises a legitimate point, but it underlines the conflicts with which we must all deal. I have been in the House for quite a long time, and year after year there are debates in which Members call for more freight to be carried by rail. We are all up for that, but of course it means that there must be interchanges with roads, and those facilities must go somewhere.

I will convey the hon. Lady’s concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who deals with planning, but I hope she believes that in principle it is a good idea for more freight to be carried by rail. The amount of rail freight has increased considerably during the past nine years, and, as I have said, the interchanges must go somewhere.

As chair of the all-party group on poverty, I wish to draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 2529, entitled “Lunch expenses for unemployed volunteers”.

[That this House believes that volunteers play an important role in building and empowering communities and that volunteering should be encouraged for all; supports job seekers and the unemployed who make time to volunteer whilst also seeking employment; notes with dismay the recent Department for Work and Pensions booklet that states that volunteers on Income Support or Job Seekers Allowance will not normally be entitled to claim lunch as an expense; is concerned that the long-standing reimbursement of volunteers as a way of appreciating and recognising their input may be undermined; is further concerned that those least able to afford volunteering are more likely to be discouraged from doing so if reasonable expenses are not provided; notes that volunteering should not be considered ‘basic needs'; and calls on the Department for Work and Pensions to promote volunteering as a benefit to job seekers and their communities, for which volunteers should have the right to claim reasonable and essential expenses.]

This may seem a small matter. The motion refers to a booklet produced by the Department for Work and Pensions, “A Guide to Volunteering While on Benefits”. The booklet is welcome, but buried in it is a small change in the guidance: the withdrawal of lunch expenses as a legitimate reimbursable claim. That will prevent many people on benefits from being able to volunteer.

I think all Members will agree that volunteering is a route back to contact and work. The matter is urgent, because the Government are introducing changes in incapacity benefit—which I hope we all support, because they will encourage people to return to work. If that small change in the guidelines were amended during the summer, while we are away, it would open up opportunities rather than closing them down.

My right hon. Friend has made an important and persuasive point, and I take it on board. I promise that I will speak personally to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and propose that the change be made.

When the House returns, will the Leader of the House provide Government time, as a matter of urgency, for us to discuss the ramifications of the Government’s decision to allow civil partnership couples in Northern Ireland to apply to adopt children in care, and the serious impact that it will have on the children in particular and on society as a whole?

I note the hon. Lady’s point of view, and I know that there are strong opinions on all sides. On the basis of my knowledge of the working of the adoption system, at least in Great Britain, I can say that the adoption authorities have the strictest duties—and in any event take the strictest care—not to permit adoptions unless they are satisfied that they are in the interests of the children concerned, and the courts would not do so either.

Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity of looking at early-day motion 2595?

[That this House congratulates Amitabh Bachchan on being awarded an honorary degree from De Montfort University, Leicester; notes his towering contribution to Indian cinema having received 10 Filmfare awards and being named BBC Star of the Millennium; recognises his work as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and as former member of the Lok Sabha, lower house of the Indian Parliament; and hopes that the award will continue to strengthen ties between the UK and India.]

Will he join me in congratulating Amitabh Bachchan on getting his honorary degree from De Montfort university? Can we have a debate on the creative industries and the importance of links between Britain and India—not just in respect of the film industry, but in respect of the exchange of overseas students, which the degree personifies?

I have indeed seen that early-day motion and I had the pleasure of meeting Amitabh Bachchan earlier today. I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he has done for the creative industries both in India and in this country. If we could find the time, I would look forward to a debate on the creative industries, which are a major part of our export effort these days. It was interesting to learn from my hon. Friend that the Indian film industry, Bollywood, now uses many UK facilities because of their world-class excellence.

I wish the Leader of the House and the whole House a good summer. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is enjoying the weather and that people will make good use of sun creams, because 60,000 people are diagnosed with skin cancer and 1,700 die from it every year, with most of the damage done in childhood. However, sun creams are not classed as health products, which they should be, so they attract VAT. Can we have a debate in order to exercise the Chancellor on this matter and get VAT removed from these essential health care products?

Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman’s serious point first. It is extremely important for people to use proper sun cream or other sun blocks. It is not for me to speak on our VAT policy, but I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s point. Secondly, reference was made earlier to my soap box sessions in Blackburn, which depend on good weather—indeed, they take place only in good weather. My constituents have often heard me refer to the sunshine and to the fact that there has been a lot more sunshine since people voted Labour in 1997.

May I once again refer to the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill? It will be strongly welcomed by the many people who have lost family members in workplace deaths, particularly when caused by reckless employers from the Herald of Free Enterprise to the railway disasters, although they can sometimes be caused by the smallest firms in the backstreets of our towns and cities. In view of the wise decision on mesothelioma in the Compensation Bill and the progress made on the Warwick agreement, will my right hon. Friend consider having a debate between now and next Tuesday on the rights of employees at work and the role of the trade unions and the Government in working together to produce a better Britain?

I would like to have a debate on that but, sadly, I do not think that we have the time between now and next Tuesday, which is a shame. I should have said earlier to several hon. Members who raised the issue that the summer recess Adjournment debate on Tuesday offers the opportunity to raise these important matters. I am grateful for the welcome for the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill. The ultimate test of its success will not be the number of convictions that follow it, but whether it changes the behaviour of business managers, resulting in far fewer deaths from the sort of major accidents that we have seen in the past.

I warmly congratulate the Leader of the House on his announcement of the tabling of named-day written questions during the recess, which partly meets the recommendations of the Procedure Committee a year or two ago. Will he give an assurance that that facility can be extended in future years?

I am happy to join in the House’s general euphoria about the approaching recess and to add my good wishes to those of others. I also warmly thank the Government for the announcement made at Farnborough air show about the award to BAE Systems of a contract for 12 Nimrod MRA4 aircraft. On behalf of the management and work force, I am most grateful to the Government. However, that leads me to my real question. Will the right hon. Gentleman find time for a debate on manufacturing industry and the different sectors of manufacturing that are of strategic importance to this country? Having such a debate at the earliest opportunity is vital. Manufacturing is in difficulty and we must maintain the strategic sectors for the benefit of this country’s security.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments on the introduction of new arrangements for parliamentary questions. I intend that when we return in October, we have the opportunity to debate the summer recess, which is a matter for the House rather than the Government. The experience of the new arrangements for parliamentary questions and written ministerial statements can be taken into account in those debates. I thank the hon. Gentleman for being one of those people who have prodded me on the issue.

On BAE Systems, I also declare an interest in that many of my constituents work for the organisation and I am glad about the announcement. I am also happy to pass on the request for a debate on manufacturing, which faces a paradoxical situation. For example, car production is not quite at its peak level, but at 1.6 million units, it is well above the trough of 900,000 to which it fell in the early 1980s, and we are exporting cars around the world. Aerospace is a world beater and both the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry are well seized of the importance of maintaining manufacturing’s output, albeit in a context in which employment levels may well reduce. One of the key challenges is to see increases in productivity beyond the trend rate.

I believe that the Department of Health is about to publish its review of communications systems in hospitals, which includes looking into the exorbitant cost—up to 49p a minute—of telephone calls from patients in hospitals. That greatly concerns my constituents, so will my right hon. Friend make time for a ministerial statement when the report is published?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The issue was also the subject of a critical report last week, so I will pass on her concerns.

In a recent parliamentary answer, it was stated that in 2004 there were 103,000 prescriptions for diamorphine hydrochloride, falling to 61,000 in 2005 due to a shortage of supplies. That has led to seriously and terminally ill patients not being able to receive the pain relief that they so desperately require, resulting in unnecessary suffering. Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement before the summer recess?

I understand the seriousness of the hon. Gentleman’s point. I will not be able to get the Secretary of State to come before the House, but I will certainly ensure that she knows about the hon. Gentleman’s concern.

I welcome the announcement that we will be able to table some written questions during the recess and that some statements will be made in September, but I put it to the Leader of the House that the ability to table written questions is no substitute for the House actually sitting. Does he share my hope that this will be the last of 75 to 80-day recesses, which bring us into such discredit with our constituents? Can we revert to the system that, after all, the House agreed to previously?

I know that my hon. Friend feels very strongly about that matter. May I say that, since I uttered some words in his support, I have rather felt that a fine career was about to go down the tubes as a result? It is absolutely clear that as the House took the original decision in 2002, any change to it must be made by the House. I am sure that my hon. Friend will not expect his view to receive unanimous support.

Has the Leader of the House seen the opinion poll in Scotland’s largest selling Sunday newspaper, the Sunday Mail, which showed that one third of English people now want independence for England? They join the more than half of Scots who want Scottish independence. Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that that represents a seismic shift in the relationship and arrangements between our two nations? Does he also recognise the frustration felt in England about the current constitutional arrangements between Scotland and the rest of the UK? Given that the Conservatives chickened out of a debate on that matter, will the Government hold a debate as soon as we return after the recess?

We have had loads of debates on that, but I am always happy to debate it. What I find, not least on my soap box in Blackburn, is that people understand how profoundly damaging such changes in the way this House operates would be, with a two-tier system of Members of Parliament and extraordinary legal arguments about whether a matter was English or Scottish. Scotland benefits from the Union, and so does England, and it would be to the detriment of the whole of the United Kingdom if we were to follow the irresponsible path proposed by the Leader of the Opposition last month—but not this month—for a two-tier system of Members of Parliament.

As I go around my constituency, I note with great pride the improvements in education. Regrettably, I spot a cloud on the horizon, although it is no bigger than a man’s hand at present. Can we bring my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to the House to deal with reports that suggest that the Government, through officials, are telling local authorities with school building programmes that they will not be successful unless that programme includes a commitment to an academy? Does my right hon. Friend realise that such a stand-off between the Government and local authorities condemns some of our children to schools such as those in my constituency that badly need replacing—for example, Heath Park—and perhaps delivers us into the hands of religious bigots, from whom children will not benefit, or indeed those who have £2 million to buy a school and whose egos need assuaging?

I know of no case in which an academy has been established and religious bigots have been involved. I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, however, and I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills is fully apprised of it.

I know that the Leader of the House does not have a photographic memory, and he is probably unable to recall precisely the length of time it took for written parliamentary questions to be returned by his Department when he was Home Secretary. I appreciate what he said a few moments ago about the improvements that the Home Secretary is trying to engineer with regard to the length of time taken, but increasingly the Home Office is answering written parliamentary questions by saying that the information is not kept centrally and could not be provided without incurring disproportionate cost. Will the Leader of the House investigate that rubric to see whether it is simply a way of avoiding responsibility for answering the question and keeping proper information? Could he also assure me that the named-day system with which he will experiment in September does not lead to a named day in October? Will he also encourage—

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is in his place and he takes the same approach to parliamentary questions as I do: if the information is available or can be extracted from the Department, it should be provided. The last accusation that can be made against my right hon. Friend—or against me five years ago—is that he is keeping bad news from the House. He is presiding not over cover up, but an open up in the Home Office.

On named-day questions, the idea is that three days will be named—Monday, Wednesday and Friday—in the first week of September for tabling the questions and the corresponding three days in the following week for answering them. I hope very much that they are all answered. My right hon. Friend will also confirm that I make myself unpopular with Cabinet colleagues if they do not answer questions on time.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the Express and Star and its superb campaign to highlight the noise, nuisance and danger caused by the illegal and antisocial use of motorbikes and mini motorbikes? Will he consider arranging a debate on the issue so that we could discuss how we can impose restrictions on their sale or a proper registration system, so that we can clamp down on those teenage Evel Knievels who disturb my constituents’ peace and quiet and put at risk people using parks and open spaces for recreation or to walk their dogs?

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has just told me that tough measures are planned for such bikes. They are a real nuisance across the country and I congratulate the Express and Star and my hon. Friend on that campaign.

The Leader of the House will be aware of the appalling decision by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to deny support services to deaf candidates taking exams in English and foreign languages, in many cases automatically depriving them of up to 20 per cent. of their marks, as drawn to the attention of the House in early-day motion 2615.

[That this House expresses concern that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority will be removing certificate indications and exemptions from the aural section of GCSEs and A-Levels in foreign languages and GCSE English examination for deaf students in the United Kingdom; notes that the facility to use an oral communicator will be withdrawn in examinations for deaf students who use an oral/aural approach, meaning that those children will immediately risk losing at least 20 per cent, of their marks; regrets that these changes have been introduced with little understanding of the impact they will have on deaf and hard of hearing young people; believes that these changes discriminate against the country’s 35,000 deaf children and that the current skills and training gap between deaf and non-deaf people will increase resulting in lower employment rates or lower grade work for disabled people; and calls on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to re-instate certificate indications for deaf candidates and human aids to communication for those that need them, to conduct a time-bound formal review into competence standards including how disabled candidates can demonstrate their competence using reasonable adjustments and to fulfil future legal obligations under the Disability Equality Duty to consult with disabled people and organisations representing disabled people before carrying out any further changes to examination arrangements for deaf and other disabled children.]

Given that that decision will influence the choices that many of those students make about which exams to take, will the Leader of the House ensure that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills makes a statement to the House before the recess, reversing that decision or otherwise restating the Government’s policy on it?

I am very sympathetic to the points raised because, as the hon. Gentleman may know, I suffer from deafness. Indeed, I could not hear part of his question because it came from the wrong side, so I understand the problems. There will be an opportunity to raise the matter in the debate on the summer Adjournment on Tuesday, and I hope that he does so.

My Friend the Prime Minister hinted a couple of weeks ago that there may be some fresh thinking on how the Government would consult the House on Trident. May I remind him of what we are demanding? We want a Green Paper setting out the options and we want a vote in this House.

On the issue of timing, my hon. Friend, who is never impatient, will know that I cannot serve up a Green or White Paper now, but there will be a statement in advance of any debate. The position was set out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister two weeks ago, when he pointed out—as my hon. Friend will recall—that we were the first Government to give the House a vote on a decision to go to war. Of course, we should involve the House fully in a decision as important as the renewal of our nuclear deterrent and in practical terms it is inevitable that there will therefore be a chance for the House to express its view on that important matter in a vote.

I call on the Leader of the House to arrange an urgent debate on the issue of permitted development rights and, in particular, how they relate to utility companies. The National Grid Company is planning a significant development of an electricity substation in an area of my constituency called Bramley Frith. Because of permitted development rights, the company does not have to make the details of the development known to the local community. The area is an important conservation area and the plans have already led to the closure of the only environmental education centre in north Hampshire, but no one can be held to account because the local community knows nothing about the plans. Will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate on the matter so that we may review the existing rules and try to make them more transparent?

The hon. Lady makes a strong case. Although the powers of public authorities in respect of permitted developments are limited, I am surprised that information has not been made available to her constituents. I will refer the matter that she raises to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and the hon. Lady may wish to raise the issue in the debate on the summer Adjournment on Tuesday.

One of the reasons why people in the north-east of England did not support regional government was that they did not wish to see an extra layer of politicians. However, there is a need for more regional accountability, especially with so many quangos in operation. Will my right hon. Friend consider the idea—perhaps over the summer—of having Grand Committees of the regions or perhaps regional questions, or both?

As a fellow north-west Member of Parliament, I am happy to think about both ideas, without commitment.

I wish to raise with the Leader of the House the tragic case of my constituent, Mr. Roy Harward, who is suffering from mesothelioma and to ask whether we may have a debate on the treatment of—not compensation for—that disease. One drug, Alimta, is licensed in this country to treat the symptoms and pain caused by mesothelioma. It can prolong life by two to three months, possibly more, but it is prescribed under a postcode lottery. If my constituent lived in Scotland, or the north-east or north-west of England, he could be prescribed that drug, but he has just had funding for treatment with Alimta refused by the local primary care trust. May we debate this issue in the House or have an urgent statement by the Secretary of State for Health, because it is unthinkable and unethical that my constituent is dying but cannot get the treatment he needs to alleviate his pain and prolong his life. There is no point—

Such situations are tragic, and I commend the hon. Lady on the way in which she has raised the issue in the House. On this particular case, I understand that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence—which, of course, covers England and Wales but not Scotland—has not until now approved the drug in question. I promise to write to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and give her a full account of my exchange with the hon. Lady in order to draw this matter to her attention, and I shall ask her to look into it and to get back in touch with the hon. Lady. Meanwhile, the hon. Lady might wish to raise the matter in the debate on the summer recess on Tuesday.

I tabled early-day motion 2591.

[That this House is exasperated at the four-year delay in depositing information in the Library despite an assurance on Afghan poppy eradication by a Foreign Office Minister on 14th May 2002 (volume 385, column 625) that ‘details of the eradication programme, maps and a video of what has been done will be placed in the Library'; notes that, despite repeated requests by the hon. Member for Newport West and Library staff since 2nd May 2006, none of the material has been placed in the Library; further notes that 21 million compensation money appears to have been paid to the Afghan government but did not reach the farmers whom it was intended to compensate; and believes that absence of the programme, maps and videos will result in a further provocative injustice that will thwart the farmers' continuing efforts to obtain compensation.]

I tabled that EDM to persuade the Foreign Office to publish essential information required by Afghan farmers in a current compensation claim that they have against the British Government. In May 2002, a promise was made in an oral answer in this House that that information—videos and maps—would be placed in the Library. Despite the efforts of the Library and others, that information is still not there. Those farmers have been robbed: their crops were destroyed, and although £21 million of British taxpayers’ money was paid to the corrupt Karzai Government, none of it has reached the farmers.

That happened under my watch as Foreign Secretary. I do not have all the details in my head, but I recall that the matter is slightly more complicated than my hon. Friend suggests. However, I will look into it with my right hon. Friend the current Foreign Secretary and ensure that either she or I get back in touch with him.

Order. We must move on to the next statement. I understand that there will be an Adjournment debate on Tuesday, so Members who have lost out now can perhaps try then.

Criminal Justice

Yesterday, I set out to the House our plans for transforming the Home Office, and I said that I would return to the House with two further sets of proposals, the first of them to rebalance the criminal justice system and the second to reform the immigration and nationality directorate. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall today present to the House the results of my review of the criminal justice system—“Re-balancing the criminal justice system in favour of the law-abiding majority”—copies of which I have placed in the Library.

As I made clear in my statement yesterday, we are not starting from year zero. My predecessors and colleagues across Government have made substantial improvements in all aspects of the criminal justice system. The overall result of that is that crime is down by 35 per cent. since 1997. Offences brought to justice have increased by 27 per cent. to 1.27 million since 2002. There are more police officers on the streets than ever before. We have given local authorities tough powers to tackle antisocial behaviour in the battle to regain community space. We have also modernised legislation in areas such as asset recovery to ensure that organised criminals are hit where it hurts—in their pockets.

However, it is clear that there are still major issues to do with the way that the criminal justice system currently operates and—just as importantly—how it is perceived to operate. Too often, it appears that the criminal justice system is on the side of the offender—that it protects their interests and individual rights over those of the victim and the law-abiding majority. That has to change. All the proposals set out today have at their core the aim to rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victim and the law-abiding majority. They are set out in detail in the published plan, but I shall highlight a few of them to illustrate our direction and our intent.

We will put law-abiding people, victims and their communities first. When asked, only 36 per cent. of people say that they are confident that the criminal justice system meets the needs of victims, compared with 80 per cent. who believe that it is fair to the accused. We will take steps to redress that imbalance. For instance, we will reform the Parole Board so that all new members have experience of victims’ issues. We will ensure that in serious sexual and violent cases, there is a victim’s voice and decisions must be unanimous. We also aim to make violent offenders pay towards the health care costs of their victims, as offenders currently do for road traffic injuries, and to reform the law to make it easier for victims to sue offenders who later get a windfall.

We will act to prevent human rights—which are rightly held dear by all in this House—from being used by offenders to secure perverse outcomes that penalise victims and the law-abiding majority. In the 1996 Chahal case, it was found that the United Kingdom Government could not consider the protection of the public as a balancing factor when arguing the case for the deportation of a dangerous person. We believe that that goes against the fundamental principle in the Human Rights Act 1998 that individual and collective rights can and should be balanced against each other, and we are working with our partners in Europe to challenge that finding as vigorously as possible. We will also ensure, by legislation if necessary, that public bodies give proper priority to public protection when considering the individual rights of offenders. To support criminal justice agencies to counter misrepresentation and misuse of the Human Rights Act, we will ensure that criminal justice agencies’ front-line staff get practical advice and guidance to dispel myths about the Act, and we will introduce a new online legal hotline to help them to do so. In addition, we will prevent criminals from abusing the law by restricting the ability of the plainly guilty to be released on appeal due to procedural irregularities.

We also need a sentencing framework that gives the public confidence. We have equipped the judiciary with new powers to allow judges to detain serious offenders indefinitely for the protection of the public, and over 1,000 of them have already been used. However, we must do more to reassure the public. Therefore, we will end the automatic one-third discount given to those caught red-handed and who plead guilty, irrespective of the circumstances. We will also remove the automatic discount offered to those resentenced on appeal, and we will end the requirement that judges should automatically halve the minimum term when setting the earliest release date for those serving unlimited sentences. The Lord Chancellor, the Attorney-General and I will consult on options on how to achieve that.

We must ensure that offenders comply. People’s confidence in the criminal justice system is undermined when they see offenders deliberately flouting the rules. Therefore, we intend to speed up the recall to prison of those offenders who break the terms of their licence. We also intend to speed the return to court of people on bail who fail to attend by restricting the use of “warrants with bail”, and to implement a presumption against bail for those who abscond or offend while on bail.

Another key area in the plan that we have published today is the focus on gripping offenders in order to better protect the public. We have 19,000 more prison places than in 1997, and about 7,000 more serious violent offenders are behind bars. It is clear to me—and, I am sure, to many in the House—that there are people in our prisons who should not be there. They range from foreign nationals to vulnerable women to those for whom mental health treatment would be more appropriate. I do not consider that what we propose in the plan is about being tougher or softer; it is about being fairer and smarter and, above all, about better protecting the public against the most serious offenders. As we make available additional capacity, we will ensure that these new resources are focused on the serious, violent and prolific offenders who ought to be in prison—sometimes for longer than they at present spend in prison. So we will ensure that we have the places that we need to protect the public.

We are embarking on 900 prison places by autumn 2007. We will expand prison places by an additional 8,000 to keep dangerous offenders in for longer. To make more space in prison for a tougher approach toward the most serious crimes, we will send more foreign nationals back to their own country to serve their sentences; speed up the court processes, which will mean that those not yet convicted spend less time on remand; and make better use of tagging for people on bail for less serious offences.

We must also do more to tackle the most prolific offenders, including drug users. The report details how we are overhauling our priority and prolific offenders and drug interventions programmes, with tougher conditions, tougher enforcement and new follow-up assessments. We will also clamp down on serious offending through measures that include increasing the maximum penalty for carrying a knife to four years, setting an ambitious new target for seizing the assets of criminals, and increasing the private sector’s involvement in asset seizure.

For the vast majority of people, their world begins with what they see when they open their own front door, step into their own street and enter and move among their own communities. What is sometimes regarded as low-level offending and antisocial behaviour thus causes real harm, damage and fear. We must therefore ensure that we tackle this issue ever more efficiently, so that the public feel increasingly safer. To do that, I propose, among other things, to add to our present range of ASBOs by examining the provision of powers to close businesses that sell knives and spray cans to under-age consumers, as part of a major review of summary powers that we will publish later in the year. I also propose to introduce parental compensation orders in 10 areas from this summer to make sure that parents take responsibility for the damage that their children cause.

Finally, we need to ensure that all this is underpinned by a simpler, swifter and fairer system to support our rebalancing aims. My right hon. Friends the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General and I propose to work with practitioners across the criminal justice system to speed up magistrates court and Crown court processes; to expand the use of conditional cautions issued by prosecutors, without the need to go to court; to develop bulk processing arrangements for simple non-contested cases such as TV licence non-payment; and to use a variety of approaches to speed up justice, such as live television link pilots between police stations and the courts, next day justice and taking courts closer to local communities.

Today’s plan is a comprehensive package of measures that builds on what this Government have done and reflects our ongoing commitment to public safety and the rights of the victim over the offender. I commend the plan to the House.

I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of his statement and I agree with a good deal of what he has proposed. We have been calling for some time for changes to the automatic sentence reduction for a guilty plea, so we welcome that. We also oppose the automatic release of the most serious offenders halfway through their sentences, so we welcome that change, too. We of course agree with the Home Secretary’s acceptance of our proposals for sentences on knife crime, and I further agree with the unanimity requirement for parole decisions, but I am amazed that members of the Parole Board do not already have experience of victims’ issues.

I welcome what sounds like a more sensible approach to human rights, although I will wait to see whether it has more effect than previous similar statements on this issue. Here, I have a question for the Home Secretary. If the Chahal challenge does not work, what will the Government then do? Again, I am amazed that front-line staff do not already get clear guidance and training in dealing with human rights issues. Taken together, these proposals are the clearest possible admission that the Conservatives were right when we suggested, against repeated Government denials, that the Human Rights Act 1998 was causing serial legal problems.

Sadly, I cannot give way to Labour Members at the moment or I should be delighted to take that intervention.

The first duty of a Government is to protect the public and, on too many occasions in the past nine years, this Government have failed to do that duty. The Home Secretary says that he now wants to rebalance the system and I sympathise with him, but before rebalancing the system one has to understand it. As we saw a few weeks ago in the case of Craig Sweeney, the Home Secretary’s understanding is different from the Attorney-General’s. That, in turn, is different from the Prime Minister’s, which, in turn, is different from the Lord Chancellor’s. In the end, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), was forced to give a written apology for the row that she engendered following the Home Secretary’s lead. Let us hope that they all now agree on what to do about this problem.

Contrary to the Home Secretary’s claims just now, under this Government crime has got worse, not better. Overall detection rates have dropped from 29 to 26 per cent., and, for violent offences, the fall is even worse: from 69 per cent. in 1997 to 50 per cent. today. For sex offences, the detection rate has more than halved.

Yesterday, the Home Secretary said that he wanted to reduce the bureaucratic burden on the police. I welcome that, so will he now commit to cutting the red tape, political correctness and targets coming out of his Department, and let the police get out on the streets and do the job? Annual crime figures out today show how desperately we need the police out on patrol deterring crime and catching criminals, not filling in forms in the station.

There are now almost 500,000 more recorded crimes a year than there were eight years ago. The number of violent crimes has more than doubled and there has been a seventh year-on-year increase. The justice gap—the difference between crimes committed and crimes cleared up, which a former Home Secretary, a former Lord Chancellor and a former Attorney-General all identified as the

“key measure of the effectiveness of the criminal justice system”—

has grown by more than 500,000 crimes a year. So much for this Government being tough on crime.

The Government’s record on the punishment, rehabilitation and supervision of offenders is equally catastrophic. Our prisons are full to bursting, which is, after all, why we are here today to discuss this issue. Offenders have little chance of rehabilitation, and dangerous criminals are released early. Some 70 per cent. of young males are now reconvicted within two years of release—up from 56 per cent. Since 1998, more than 200 offenders on supervision have been convicted of murder. Those facts are direct results of Government policy. They have consistently failed to create enough prison places, instead choosing to release offenders early, thereby putting the lives of innocent citizens at risk.

Now the Home Secretary says that he will build more prisons, which we of course welcome. Will those extra places be enough—over and above the ongoing growth in the prison population—to accommodate the tougher sentences and guidelines that he is proposing today? When will those sentencing measures come into force? When will the new prisons be built and when will the 8,000 extra prison places be ready for use? I understand from press coverage that it will take five years to get these extra places on stream. What will happen meanwhile? Will there be more early releases of would-be murderers? Will there be more ridiculously light sentences for rapists and paedophiles? If, as he says, he is going to release other people, can he give us more details on who they will be?

Because the Government failed to spend money on prisons in the past, they have had to rely more and more on non-custodial sentences, and the record is truly dreadful. A massive 88 per cent. of young offenders on the Government’s flagship intensive supervision and surveillance programme, supposedly the toughest alternative to prison, reoffended within 12 months.

The Home Secretary mentioned the concerns about drug treatment orders. Roughly 70 per cent. of offenders do not complete their orders, while 80 per cent. are reconvicted within two years. What is he going to do about the failing intensive supervision and surveillance programme and about the failure of drug treatment orders? Will he seriously consider our proposals for a tough residential treatment option for drugs users—ideally instead of prison, but even after prison? Drug addiction is probably the largest component in the increase in recidivism over the past several years.

I welcome the proposal to accelerate the processes in magistrates and other courts. From memory, I think that the time taken by magistrates courts has increased in the past five years by two working weeks, with the increase in Crown courts about double that. In both cases, the extra time is the result of the burdens, regulations and complex legislation that the Government have laid on the courts. It is time that that problem was put right.

As the Home Secretary just said, we are not starting from year zero. The Government have had nine years in office, during which time they have been long on promises but short on delivery. The simple truth is that we have heard all of this before. I enjoyed the headline in today’s edition of the right hon. Gentleman’s favourite daily read, The Sun. It cries out, “Blair Axes Soft Sentences”. I enjoyed that almost as much as last year’s version—“I’ll Change Law to Curb Thugs”—or the one of the year before—“Blair’s Plan to End the Anarchy on Our Streets”. Similar headlines appeared in the several preceding years, but what has happened? The problem has got worse, not better. So here we are again, facing the same problems, but with a different Labour Home Secretary claiming to have the solutions. The right hon. Gentleman talks a good story, but so did his three predecessors.

I am sorry that the Leader of the House has left the Chamber, as he started the Labour tradition of talking tough on crime. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) refined the art—boy, did he talk tough on crime. So did the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), and the tabloids loved them. If speeches caught criminals, we would have swept the streets clean of lawlessness by now. Those three former Home Secretaries are the ones who presided over the disaster that we are witnessing today, because talk was all that they had to offer. Let us hope that, from this Home Secretary, we will get action, not words.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the kind words with which he welcomed my statement and for his support for some of the proposals in it. He asked whether we would consider other measures that he has looked at, and I can tell him that I am open-minded and always prepared to consider any measure that will protect the public better.

I fear that the right hon. Gentleman probably wrote parts of his speech before he heard my statement. [Hon. Members: “No.”] I said specifically that this was not a question of being tougher or softer, but of being smarter and better at protecting the public. I am interested in the objective effect of what we do, rather than in the talk, tough or otherwise, that surrounds it. He invited me to draw a comparison between his tough talk and some of the Opposition’s actions, and I shall do so towards the end of my response to his remarks.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that many members of the Parole Board have experience of being a victim in their normal lives. Not all of them do, however, and we want to ensure that all members have that perspective. That is why we want make that true of every new member.

On human rights, I said that we would look at how legislation is misrepresented or misinterpreted, and at how it is administered. From even a brief survey, it is plain to me that human rights and other legislation can lead to misunderstanding. For example, the way that the Data Protection Act 1998 was applied led to problems in the pursuit of Huntley, while misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the human rights and other legislation were at the root of the release of Rice, who went on to murder Naomi Bryant.

We need to be prepared to make available practical facilities to counter the myths about human rights when they are misused or misrepresented in such a way that people feel that they must take a particular course of action. That is the rebalancing that I am trying to achieve.

The Leader of the Opposition has proposed to solve the problem of the European convention on human rights not by amending or getting rid of it, but by introducing yet another Bill of Rights. That is the last thing that we need––a Bill of Rights that could contradict the ECHR. Anyway, that proposal was just another gimmick, like his views on antisocial behaviour, and did not last 24 hours, far less the tenures of three successive Home Secretaries.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) mentioned the discussions that have taken place between the Lord Chancellor, the Attorney-General and myself on sentencing. The truth is that we have reached agreement on this matter. For instance, judges have no discretion when it comes to the mandatory 30 per cent. reduction in sentences that a guilty plea earns. That reduction applies irrespective of the circumstances in which a person is caught: even someone who is caught in flagrante will get that sentence reduction through pleading guilty. We are sometimes accused of taking discretion away from judges, but in this case we are giving it back to them.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about prison places. He likes to have it both ways: if we do not put people in prison, we are accused of being soft, but if we do, the complaint is that our prisons are bursting. I want to put the following on the record. There are now 19,000 more people in prison, many of them serious, violent or sexual offenders, than was ever the case under the previous Conservative Government. Moreover, sentences are much longer than they used to be under that Government. Of course we must look carefully at who is in prison but, when it comes to putting people behind bars, I am afraid that the Conservatives give us only the usual tough talk and soft-centred voting.

I thought that sentencing might come up today, so I have brought with me the Conservative voting record on the tough measures that we have introduced. The early removals scheme allows foreign national prisoners to be deported halfway through their sentences, but the Conservatives voted against it. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 introduced tougher sentences for murder and for sexual and violent offences, and for persistent offenders, but the Conservatives voted against them. We brought in indeterminate sentences for people who have committed a serious sexual or violent offence, but the Conservatives voted against them. We introduced the new five-year minimal custodial sentence for unauthorised possession of a firearm, but the Conservatives voted against it. I could go through the whole list, but it is clear that, as ever, the Opposition talk tough but vote soft. The overall 35 per cent. reduction in crime since we took over from the Conservatives is a mark of this Government’s effectiveness.

We do not claim that our performance is perfect, and that is why we review and upgrade it continually. However, it is a damn sight better than what we inherited from the previous Government.

Order. May I ask hon. Members to restrict themselves to one supplementary question that elicits a brief reply? In that way, more may succeed in catching my eye.

I welcome much of what my right hon. Friend said. If we want to be smarter, rather than simply tougher, we must recognise that our prisons are full and hold many of the wrong people, and that the prison regime offers precious little chance that prisoners can be rehabilitated and brought back into stable jobs and family life when they leave. My right hon. Friend must have secured a significant amount of new money: how will he use it to transform the prison regime, so that it places a much bigger emphasis on work and a disciplined working day, and on returning people to working life after they leave prison?

I take my right hon. Friend’s point that protection and punishment have to be accompanied by rehabilitation not only because that is good for the individual offender or prisoner, but because that contributes to the protection of society by a reduction in reoffending. That is why I am pleased that, last year, 79,000 prisoners—I think that was the figure—were involved in some form of qualification and skill enhancement. I want that to be advanced. The extension of places and the release of pressure on the prison system itself, which in its most fundamental aspects is intended to reduce the potential for overcrowding, always extends the possibility of carrying out such skills enhancement. I saw an element of that when I was in Wandsworth prison, where some of the skills that will be necessary to prepare for the Olympics in London—for example, plastering and bricklaying—are being introduced, in partnership with private sector firms in the building industry, which will employ offenders when they are released. That is the way forward.

I thank the Home Secretary for advance notice of his statement, although I saw from my early edition of The Sun that others had received versions of it even before we had in the House.

Much of the Home Secretary’s statement is arguably too little. Quite a lot of it is too late. None the less, significant parts of it are welcome. I welcome, for example, the almost surprising rhetoric that he has displayed today about prisons. He has recognised, I think for the first time, that there are people in our prisons who should not be there, including vulnerable women and those who need treatment for mental health conditions. Rather than announcing new multi-million pound budgets for investing in bricks and mortar for new prisons, does he not think it would be worth investing that money in bricks and mortar for new secure mental health treatment centres, where those offenders could be more adequately housed, dealt with and rehabilitated? Equally, there is a strong case to invest far more in visible and rigorous public punishment sentences in the community. He will be aware that, in 2004, for example, over 50,000 lesser offenders served no more than an average of eight weeks in prison. Surely it would be better to have them punished and rehabilitated for the benefit of our communities, rather than them spending a few stopover weeks in prison.

The Home Secretary should be mindful that the Home Office’s own research 10 years ago or so showed that, if we wanted to reduce the overall level of crime by 1 per cent., we would need to increase prison capacity by 25 per cent. That statistic itself shows that there are limits to how much the Government can build itself out of the present prison overcrowding crisis.

I am relieved to see that the Home Secretary and other members of the Government appear to have resiled from the early tub-thumping rhetoric against the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights, and that that approach has apparently been abandoned in favour of a more intelligent emphasis on the training and support needed for officials who have to interpret the Act. Next time there is a controversy over an issue as important as human rights, could he and his colleagues refrain from jumping on the media bandwagon and arrive earlier at the correct conclusion that he has appeared to arrive at today?

On sentencing, we agree, of course, that we need to give judges more discretion in setting the deductions for guilty pleas and in removing the automatic halving of the period of custody before release can be considered. I note, however, that those welcome moves merely undo rules that were introduced by the Government in legislation passed only a few years ago. I also welcome in principle the idea that Parole Board decisions on serious offences should be unanimous, although I suspect that in practice—I would like some clarification on this—that happens most of the time any way.

Can the Home Secretary explain why he has not gone further? Surely one of the greatest problems is that so many of the sentences handed down simply do not do what they say and that is one of the main reasons why public confidence in our sentencing system has been severely eroded. Life sentences, for example, do not mean life. Does he agree that public confidence would be considerably strengthened if a life sentence really meant life and applied to those cases where the courts judge that the offender should remain in custody for the remainder of his or her life?

Again, I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman, despite the burden of his remarks, seems to find much with which he can agree in what I have said today. I am always gratified to see that that is the case on both Opposition Benches.

It is true that we should be spending more on health. From memory, the health budget has gone from £33 billion to £95 billion or thereabouts, including increases in mental health spending, so a considerable amount of money is already going into that sector, but the point about making sure that there are, in substance and in perception, sufficient prison places is this. It is the sine qua non for three things. The first is to ensure that those serious offenders who should be in prison for a long period for public protection purposes and for other reasons are kept there. Secondly, if we are to discriminate, in the proper sense, in order to relieve our prisons of the burdens of those who should not be there, it is important that the public believe that we are doing that for legitimate reasons and not just because we are short of prison places. Thirdly, I do not believe that the public will accept community service as a legitimate means of serving and repaying the community unless, again, they believe that it is being done for reasons other than a shortage of prison places. In short, more prison places is the sine qua non. It is the basic requirement for protecting the public better, ensuring that those who are in prison are the people who should be in prison and ensuring that there is a legitimacy to alternatives other than prison.

The hon. Gentleman raised human rights. I do not think that it is tub thumping to say that the public are utterly bewildered by some sentences. He himself talked about that in his last comments. The public are utterly bewildered. There are two reasons for that: first, the misrepresentation of human rights and, secondly, the judgments on the European convention on human rights by the European Court. I mentioned one of them earlier—the Chahal judgment. That is outrageously at odds with what we believe to be the correct balance of human rights as expressed in the Human Rights Act and as understood by everyone in this Chamber: the balance of the individual versus the community. That is why we oppose that. It is not a matter of tub thumping. It is a matter of saying that there are substantial problems; there are problems that we must look at not only in legislation but as regards interpretation, misrepresentation and maladministration.

The hon. Gentleman made a quip about being on television. As far as I can make out, he has a season ticket to the television studios. I have hardly been in them in the past seven weeks, but I have not needed to be because I have had the vicarious thrill of experiencing what they are like by watching him.

Stafford has a prison that I visit regularly. I agree with my right hon. Friend that too many prisoners there cannot read and write, have mental illnesses or a dependency on alcohol or drugs. I am pleased to hear that he will try to find alternative outcomes for such individuals.

My question is about those serious offenders who serve long sentences. Did I hear my right hon. Friend say that the Parole Board will seek out the views of the specific victims of that offender’s behaviour before they make the decision on parole? When he makes the decisions about changing the sentences that they serve, will he bear in mind the effect on prison discipline, because prison officers already do difficult work for us, in challenging circumstances, and those changes will have an effect on the work that they do?

Yes, I will bear that in mind. Most people looking at some of the decisions that have been taken believe that it is necessary to restore public confidence in parole decisions. I have the highest admiration for the people who work on parole boards and the commitment, professionalism and dedication that they show. We can improve confidence by doing three things.

First, we should assure ourselves that all new members have experience of what it is like to be a victim either directly or, if they do not have personal experience of that, indirectly from assisting victims. Secondly, we should make sure that in serious cases, involving violent or sexual offences for instance, there is an expression of the victim’s voice, not as a member of the parole board but to supplement the experience of the parole board. There is no reason why that cannot be done—for instance, by legal representation and, if necessary in serious cases, legal representation in consultation with the family. If there is to be an oral hearing and the offender is allowed to put his case for release, it is not obvious to me why those who have suffered as a result of the offence should not have the right to some representation, at least on their behalf if not directly.

Thirdly, we should require unanimity. In many cases at present there is unanimity, but it should be a requirement in cases of serious and violent offences. Those three things together will restore the balance.

The public do indeed need to be protected from those who commit serious, violent and sexual offences, but those are not the type of offences that tend to be committed by women. The Home Secretary touched on that when he referred to vulnerable women in prison. Can he give us an assurance that he is not planning for more women to go to prison, but is planning for a sentencing system under which, wherever appropriate, women serve their sentences as close as possible to home and preferably in the company of their children?

We want to act in a humane way. The Government have done more on domestic violence than any predecessor Government. I cannot predict the statistics. Some vulnerable women are involved in a cycle and end up in prison; if they go out, they up in prison again. We want to address that in a sensible and smart as well as efficient fashion, from the point of view of protection of the public as well as from the point of view of the individual.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s proposals to change the sentencing guidelines. I know that my constituents whose three-year-old daughter was assaulted by Craig Sweeney will particularly welcome the fact that there will no longer be an automatic cut of a third of the sentence for a guilty plea or automatic consideration for parole after serving half the sentence. They have campaigned for that. I pay tribute to the dignified way in which they have dealt with that family tragedy.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that these changes to the sentencing guidelines should be aimed at the most dangerous offenders and those who are the greatest risk to the public?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. I made my views known about that sentence at the time. I am glad that we now have widespread agreement that the points that she mentions ought to be addressed when looking at sentencing.

The Home Office knows that every week more than 2,000 people commit for the first time a serious criminal offence. I hope that the Home Secretary will at some stage find a way of publishing those figures and showing whether there have been changes. If we are to have fewer victims, we need to have fewer people committing serious crimes. Is there any possibility of setting an ambition of needing not more prison places but fewer, either because offenders have been treated more adequately, reformed and put back into society, or because fewer people commit crimes in the first place, which must be the ambition of both the Government and the Opposition?

Of course we want ultimately to have fewer people committing crimes. That would have the consequence that the hon. Gentleman seeks, which is fewer people in prison. However, as long as there are people committing crimes, we will need prison places. Overall, according to the British crime survey, crime is down by 35 per cent. since 1997, which is a fairly significant reduction. It has been accompanied by an increase in the number of those in prison and the length of sentences because we believe that, while we should reduce crime, we should treat those who commit violent or serious sexual offences in a more fitting manner by giving them tougher sentences. That is the view that we have tried to take in a balanced and sensible fashion.

The views that the hon. Gentleman expresses do not concur entirely with those expressed by his Front-Bench spokesmen. [Interruption.] He is right. They do not necessarily concur with mine either, but then we are not in the same party. One would expect some sort of relationship between the members of one party. The discovery of the Conservative party’s feminine side has impressed us all, but I have no plans to hug a hoodie or to hug a thug or to go any further than the plans that I have announced today.

Next Wednesday, when everyone is going off on holiday, I shall be in Blackfriars crown court starting jury service. We changed the law three or four years ago. I have been reflecting on the experience that is to come. Has any systematic work been done to canvass the views of the thousands of people who have served on juries on how delays can be minimised and on other changes that might be made to the system?

My hon. Friend’s commitment to public service appears to know no bounds. We are all, I am sure, duly impressed with that. It is with delight and surprise that I come to the Dispatch Box without my usual riposte to my hon. Friend, which is to distance myself from his suggestions. I hope that it will not go against me in my career, but I agree with him. We ought to carry out a wider public consultation on a number of the measures that we are putting forward here today. The public want to and ought to feel that all of us in this House make decisions after listening to them.

Some people mix up populism with listening to the views of ordinary people. Therefore consultation on many of the proposals that we have outlined, which go further than the changes to which we have committed ourselves today, ought to be a good idea. We should go into communities. I hope that other members of the criminal justice system will do that alongside us. Part of that might be to listen to former jury members and, indeed, to my hon. Friend himself.

The Chahal decision was in 1996, a decade ago. When do the Government expect to mount an effective challenge to that? What are the Government going to do if they fail to overturn the decision?

I think that the hon. Gentleman understands that, as in our own judicial system, things do not always move as quickly as we would like. We are already engaged along with European colleagues in a challenge to that decision through another case that is before the European Court of Human Rights. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman for definite when that case will end, but I think that it will be in the next 12 months. That is not a prediction but an estimate. I have found from long experience that when pursuing one course of action it is wise not to start outlining to all sorts of people, including those who sit in judgment, what we would do if we did not achieve our objective. We should pursue our objective.

If the Home Secretary is intent, as I know he is, on making sure that society and my constituents are protected from the most violent criminals—those who kill and seriously maim—will he address the important issue of witness intimidation? There is no doubt that those who intimidate witnesses can escape justice and terrify the very victims whom my right hon. Friend wants to protect.

That is absolutely true, which is one of the reasons why we have been exploring and introducing prevention orders against organised crime, to prevent that and a number of other offences before they happen. I agree with my hon. Friend that the issue is important. We are already acting on it, but we will keep it under review, and if it is necessary to tweak or rebalance the system to counter it we will do so.

The Home Secretary referred in his statement to the perception of the way in which the criminal justice system works, although the unfair criticism of Judge John Griffith Williams in the Sweeney case did nothing for that perception. However, I welcome the reference to drugs intervention and hope that a lot of resources will be allocated to it; as the Home Secretary knows, two thirds of property crime is drugs-related. I commend to him the good work on drugs intervention at Altcourse prison in Liverpool.

I thank the hon. Gentleman and join him in his last comment. On the leniency of sentences, I hope that people will separate personalities from objective outcomes. I do not regret for one minute that I criticised the unduly lenient nature of a sentence. Today, I have announced measures to make sure that such sentences are not unduly lenient in future. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), who spoke about the case earlier, recognised that we are moving towards changing the system. There is common agreement about that, so I think I should confine my remarks to the nature of the sentencing, not the personalities involved.

A recent survey that I carried out among my constituents on policing and law and order issues showed that their priorities were for more visible policing and tougher sentences. They also wanted more protection from antisocial behaviour and street crime and a better response to it. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that in carrying out his welcome proposals he will meet the priorities of my constituents?

I am glad to confirm to my hon. Friend that the priorities independently identified by her constituents are precisely mine: a visible, accessible, responsive police service is what people want in their communities. When I was speaking earlier, I received criticism from Opposition Members; I merely remind them that we have more police than ever before and more police on our streets and on the beat than ever before, accompanied by community support officers and neighbourhood wardens. They are developing neighbourhood teams, and are empowered to counter antisocial behaviours as never before. That we are doing all that reflects the fact that our priorities are the same as those of my hon. Friend’s constituents.

I welcome the direction taken by the statement, although it represents an admission of failure because the Government have been going in the wrong direction for nine years. To rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victim, may I suggest that the Home Secretary reintroduce some honesty in the sentencing system to make sure that prisoners serve their sentence in full? Will he also make a commitment to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998, which in the public’s mind has done so much to entrench a culture in which people believe that the system favours giving rights to criminals, prisoners and illegal immigrants at the expense of the ordinary, decent, law-abiding citizens of this country? Both those measures would meet with huge public approval.

That does not seem to be the view of the leader of the hon. Gentleman’s party, who has resiled from any commitment to leave the European convention on human rights and instead has promised us the undoubted bonus of yet another Bill of Rights to add to the convention. Rather than asking me to do what his own party leader will not do, the hon. Gentleman would do better to start a little closer to home, as we are trying to do with our antisocial behaviour measures to protect people in their homes, on the streets and in their communities. The vast majority of people want effective policing and security and a reduction of fear.

Can my right hon. Friend assure me that money for new prison places will not direct resources away from existing prisons, especially their education, training and mental health services and other measures designed to reduce reoffending? Can every effort be made to identify the vulnerable women and others for whom prison is not suitable and to direct them to more appropriate services?

Yes, I will try to do that. In another place, Lady Corston is carrying out a review. My noble Friend Baroness Scotland, the Minister in the other place, takes a great interest in the matter and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), who has three prisons and a young offenders institution in her constituency, takes a particular interest, too. I shall rely on all of them to help me move in the direction she suggests.

My constituent was left in a coma after an assault by a young thug who, 10 days earlier, had been released with a three-month supervision order for a similar crime. The maximum sentence for his crime was five years, but the guideline was 15 months, so because he had already served six months in custody the judge had no alternative but to let him free to go back on the streets. The sentencing guidelines are part of the problem. What does the Home Secretary propose to do about them?

As I told the House earlier, the Attorney-General, the Lord Chancellor and I will be consulting our colleagues, including those who make up the bulk of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, on a number of issues. I hope that the outcome of those discussions will reassure the hon. Gentleman that some of the things he raised are being addressed.

I look forward to the Home Secretary’s consultation with former jurors, as, like my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), I was summoned for jury service—at the Old Bailey, last week. It was a bit of a damp squib; 120 of us were summoned and we sat in a cramped room for three hours before we were released without having to serve the rest of our two weeks. Do not we need radical changes in the way courts are run? The sittings should not simply be in the interests of the lawyers and at the convenience of the judge. There should be programmed times for cases so that trials are not as long as they are at present, and jurors and witnesses should not be treated as some kind of necessary evil.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend’s comments. That is why our priorities included not only protecting the public from violent crime and prolific offenders, putting victims and communities first, building public confidence in sentencing and gripping offenders to protect the public, but also simple, speedy summary justice, with things such as live TV links between police stations and courts to speed processing, the expanded use of conditional cautions and the bulk processing of regulatory offences. Recently, I visited a court in the Liverpool area where there is a degree of pre-consultation between all the parties involved—from the prosecution right through to probation and policing. The driving dynamism of the judge in that court has greatly expedited efficient treatment and fairness, and diminished inconvenience and cost to everyone. I hope that example of bringing the parties together more efficiently, which has already spread to Manchester, will spread throughout the country.

In welcoming much of what the Home Secretary has announced today, I urge him to have an early discussion with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland so that people in my area, too, can benefit from a greater sense of fairness in the sentencing regime and so that they can have a sense that the criminal justice system is both fair to, and meeting the needs of, victims. He will know from his previous experience that we already lag behind in many areas, such as ASBOs, unlimited sentencing, the life sentence tariffs and so on. He is the man who can have a word with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Will he do it quickly and ensure that we get action on these areas?

I am always willing to have discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—formally and informally—but I would much rather that the rapid progress in this area was made by the people of Northern Ireland themselves, and together, wherever that is possible.